Last year, at the age of 36, my husband of seven years went through a full-blown "midlife" crisis triggered by his needing reading glasses. Over a period of eight months, he exhibited all the standard-issue symptoms, including buying a sports car and expensive gadgets, having regrets about missed experiences of youth, wanting more space and having an affair with his married subordinate, which he still denies. In the beginning, he talked much about the thoughts in his head -- the confusion he was experiencing. The only thing he could not talk about was our future together. We tried couples counseling without success -- I had too many questions about "us," and he had no answers.
During this time, I went through the emotional stages of grief -- denial, anger, depression and bargaining -- and in this last phase, I somehow lost myself (complete annihilation of the ego and self-esteem). Three weeks ago, we filed for a divorce and all I am left with are unanswered questions and hurt.
So, my questions are as follows:
1. Is a midlife crisis real or just a means of shirking responsibilities and ending relationships?
2. How do I find myself again and experience the last stage of grief -- acceptance?
3. How do I stop loving him?
Midlife Crisis Widow
Dear Midlife Crisis Widow,
I think those are good questions in a general sort of way, but I cannot answer them in a general sort of way because there is nothing sort of general about what happened to you. Whatever wrenching, shattering, intimate crisis and transformation you are having trouble getting over happened between two loving, complicated individuals in a complex and intimate embrace. No one who did not know you both well, not an author of books about the stages of grief, not a psychologist, not an Internet advice columnist can tell you what order you have to have your pain in.
Nobody can change what he did or how you feel about it by giving it the right name. Nobody can fix the way you're feeling by placing you in the correct statistical cohort of women whose husbands of seven years leave them at age 36 for reasons incomprehensible and possibly manufactured or cribbed from daytime television.
Maybe that makes you feel better or maybe that makes you feel worse, but it's supposed to make you feel better. Maybe not better right away but better in the long run. Because in the long run you are going to need everything that happened between you and everything you believed, everything that glittered but turned out not to be gold, everything you were looking for in the mirror of his heart, all the plans you drew for the lake house, all the annuities you enumerated for the long pensioner's twilight.
You hear what I'm saying? You need to go through this. You come on like you can't wait to close the book and chalk it up to a syndrome. I want you to go through this, every inch of it, and know it, and learn from it, and live with it, and come out of it somebody with new strength and dignity and a quiet inner peace that comes from mature pain and angelic meditation day in and day out as long as it takes.
Maybe he lied to you and was a real shit but you were in love with him and married him and unless you were asleep during the wedding and honeymoon and seven years of cohabitation and commingling of finances and cousins and car payments this meant something and was worth something and losing it is going to hurt for a long time but not forever. That's as finely as anyone can pin it. Things are going to happen to you as you go through this, things that you don't understand and aren't ready for. All I can say is: Feel it all. Don't run from it. Don't drug yourself away from it. Don't drink yourself numb to it. Feel it and trust it and keep going. It will reward you in the end.
So how do you find yourself again and experience the "last stage of grief" and stop loving him? It happens at some unspecified moment after you pound your fists on the wall and shatter some glasses and get the second car put in your name and paint the walls and plant the plants he never liked and go out with some friends who never knew you were even married to him. Somewhere along the way after doing what you have to do in your own way in your own time, not calling it healing and not scheduling it on a white board but just bulling your way through it with the uncomprehending determination that is sometimes called faith and sometimes called the instinct for survival and sometimes called a necessary belief in a nourishing fiction, you are going to be talking on the phone or eating or opening a window or just walking dully along and you are going to notice that he's not in your head anymore, he's not shadowing you, he's not pulling you down and you don't even care anymore about what happened or how he left, in fact you hardly notice he's gone except that it is notably quieter in the area of your heart.
Something like that, I believe, is what will happen for you in due time, and you will receive it as a gift; you will see that this was not some shitty accident on the way to an appointment with life but life itself, your life, your fate, with bloody scratches from your own fingernails dragged heavily across its back.
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What? You want more?